“When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi is among the bestsellers in the U.S. Kalanithi was an Indian American and was the son of a doctor. He had almost completed his decade of training as a neurosurgeon. This was really a hard profession to do as doctors in this profession see the life, the death, and the worsening of life of patients, and all this lies in few millimeters of cutting. For example, few millimeters of wrong incisions by surgeons could result in huge problems in the life of patients. Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic lung cancer and died at the age of 37 years.
When Breath Becomes Air gives an account of a trainee surgeon working on some images from a CT scan. He is highly trained and knows the spread of tumors across the lungs, obliteration of one lobe of the liver, and deformation of the spine. The diagnosis is very clear, “Cancer, widely disseminated.” However, this case is different from every other case, he deals every week – the case is that of his own. This story (the book) is showing the transition of the life of a person from becoming a doctor (neurosurgeon) to becoming a patient (of advanced lung cancer).
First part of the book is about the upbringing of Kalanithi and his meeting with Lucy, his wife and a doctor. He studies literature and biology at Standford, then philosophy and history of medicine at Cambridge, and eventually, neurosurgery at Yale. During professional and working life, Kalanithi works hard and get many achievements.
In the second part of the book, Kalanithi describes his disease and death. When cancer starts weakening his body, writing started. The parts of the life in which he knows that he has something wrong, but doesn’t confirm the presence of any serious problems, have been presented in a horrible detail. His back pain increases and weight drops. Although the fear of something serious is there, he keeps on working by taking analgesics. Even before diagnosis, he works for 36 hours at the operating table. After receiving the diagnosis, the book states, “Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when.”
After diagnosis with cancer, he works on the chances of living, and decides that he has to consider that he is going to live a long life. After starting the treatment, the symptoms subside, and he moves back to his passion of medical profession. He and his wife also plan a child. “Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?” asks Lucy. Kalanithi responds: “Wouldn’t it be great if it did?” This could be the response of any healthy person.
This book is powerful in its eloquent insistence that one day every one of us is going to die. It shows annoying and frustrating troubles and frank reflections of a person. A reader can also sense the feelings of a patient having a terminal illness, particularly during an admission of such patient to a hospital, which is filled with wise acceptance, hopes, and a persistent desire to work, live, and love others in a normal way.
According to Kalanithi, most important question is not how long one is going to live but how beautifully he is going to live – and the answer to this question can’t be found in any medical textbook. After reading the book, one can find the prodigious talent of Dr. Kalanithi. “Human knowledge is never contained in one person,” Kalanithi writes. “It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still, it is never complete.” In the short lifespan, he achieved recognition as a scholar, a scientist, a surgeon, and, posthumously, as a writer.
About the Book:
Book: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Publisher: Random House